Morgantown, W.Va. is a perfect setting for Mr. Miller's story featuring struggling musician Preston Black. Morgantown's a place in which many young musicians pass through on tour. It's also a town where young talent engaged in studies at West Virginia University also form their own bands, performing at venues such as 123 Pleasant Street (formerly The Underground Railroad.)
But just as "love" and "hate" can be two sides of the same coin, the flip side of Morgantown is its alter-ego, "Morganhole," an alcohol-fueled bar town mostly filled with people ages 18-22 and over 60 (with not many people in between who are out and about) where you can get hopelessly stuck and/or lost forever dancing with the Devil in your own dreams. Let's just say this version of Morgantown known as "Morganhole" is not always the best spot in life for a musician about to hit 30, who enjoys drink, is still playing covers and still haunting the same bars he's played for nearly 10 years. Preston Black has the talent and the heart of a true songwriter, not a cover musician. He knows deep inside he's got to get his songs to L.A. or Nashville, but someone (or something's) holding him back.
Mr. Miller draws us into the story immediately with Preston's troubled youth, which includes his searching for a father he's never known. Preston's about to turn 27, struggling with a sense of doom and what he believes is the same infamous musicians' "Curse of 27" that struck down Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and other well-known musicians.
Early in the novel, we meet a mysterious "femme fatale" type character. We also get an unsettling feeling. Even Preston's dreams seem like they're hell-bent on getting him (or telling him something important). And Preston continues to get bizarre text messages from an unknown name/unknown number seemingly from out of nowhere.
The mystery continues to build as Preston meets Jamie Collins, a professor and fellow musician/music historian/archivist/recorder of old-time music. Jamie and Preston connect with a shared love of the deep roots of music. Jamie takes Preston on the road to Davis, West Virginia and later to Pocahontas County, West Virginia, as part of Preston's search for his own roots and quest to find meaning in his life.
Mr. Miller is obviously knowledgeable about traditional Appalachian music, the genealogy of songs, how songs change and grow in different areas, as well as guitar, fiddle, dulcimers and other instruments. The author has included in his novel much information about the West Virginia highlands and central West Virginia, an area that is rich with these old-time Appalachian music traditions. Mr. Miller follows in this tradition of storytelling/folk music.
We feel like we're on the road with Preston, although we initially don't know where his path, full of twists and turns, will lead to. All we know is the road is taking Preston further and further into the Appalachian mountains, where we begin to see telltale signs of superstition, hexes and the like, signs such as SATOR Squares above windows on farms intended to ward off the Devil, and so on.
With "The Devil and Preston Black," the Devil didn't go down to Georgia this time, but he decided to pay a special visit to West Virginia instead. This novel has plenty of conflict (including inner conflict and conflict between the town and the city). It spins a powerful mystery that keeps you turning pages. And most of all, it describes a universe of deep-rooted music that you never want to leave. Mr. Miller hooks you quickly into Preston Black's world, and you don't want the book to end. Reading this novel, you actually begin to hear the music. You feel like you're right there on the stage with Preston, like it's your hands that are on the guitar strings.
If you love guitars, Appalachian folk music and the work of John Lennon, Joe Strummer, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia, Johnny Cash and other talented musicians/songwriters, then this is the novel for you. Let me also add the book's cover, depicting a guitar with flames in the background, is done by the renowned Hatch Show Print in Nashville, Tennessee. The cover's stunning and worthy to be framed and displayed in its own right. As a work of art, the book makes a great collector's piece for any musician. (Note: I purchased the paper edition of "The Devil and Preston Black" during an early launch party in December at Black Bear Burritos in Morgantown, W.Va.)
Think of "The Devil and Preston Black" like a sheet of music with your name on it. Imagine if you suddenly discovered a lost song that whispers your fate. Would you want to hear the end of it? What would the last lyrics be? Like your life, it's a song that's only partly written, a tune you don't know all the words to. But if you play your cards right, you might just find out whether or not the Devil's real.
As Mr. Miller says in his novel, "Songs connect people to parts of themselves they didn't know they'd lost." You don't want to miss out on hearing this song in full. Put "The Devil and Preston Black" on your turntable, close your eyes and let it play to the end. It'll take you there, I promise you, to those hidden songs of you, to those parts you believed (or hoped) you'd lost, perhaps those pieces you purposefully stuffed between the cushions of your living room couch or tucked away in the closet along with your faded photographs. You'll find those shards again, without a doubt, inside the spellbinding pages of "The Devil and Preston Black."